By Julien Allen
Dir. Jacques Audiard, France/Italy, Sony Pictures Classics
One of the first things viewers will inevitably remember from A Prophet is an early sequence in which the film’s young hero, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) murders a fellow prison inmate, by extracting a concealed razor blade from inside his mouth with his tongue, and slicing open the unsuspecting victim's throat. Notwithstanding the stygian brutality of this scene (from which a residual dread is likely to remain with the viewer throughout the film), A Prophet is ultimately as memorable for the responsibility it assumes, as it is for the savagery it depicts. At a time where an entire sub-genre of popular cinema exists only to invent more repulsive and cruel forms of torture, not once during A Prophet does the horror on the screen feel any less real than that of the chaotic world it succeeds in depicting with moral precision and intellectual honesty. Few will quibble against the consensus since Cannes ’09 that A Prophet is a gripping and exceptionally well-crafted crime film, but whether it represents a substantial step up for its director is more debatable.
Jacques Audiard's cinema does not fit easily into the tapestry being woven by today’s generation of French filmmakers. His father, Michel Audiard, was France’s most celebrated dialoguiste (French commercial cinema traditionally split the roles of the dialogue writer and the scénariste) much of whose output formed part of the infamous “tradition of quality” decried by the New Wave. Whilst Jacques has seemingly inherited none of his father’s brio in that regard, his cinema shares the directness and simplicity of his father’s collaborators, Georges Lautner and Henri Verneuil, directors who between them averaged two crime films a year during the 1960s, none of which would have made a Cannes shortlist and few of which were even sold outside France, but most of which were extremely watchable.
Unlike his father’s partners in crime, Audiard junior straddles the mainstream and the art house by investing simple crime stories with social significance and an uncommon sensitivity towards his characters; his films usually present a young male protagonist (Mathieu Kassovitz in A Self-Made Hero, Romain Duris in The Beat That My Heart Skipped) faced with monumental choices. This storytelling approach is continued and intensified in A Prophet by investing Malik's character with a spiritual dimension: he is both prophet (in that he may have a “gift”) and prophecy (in that he represents a worrying prototype of a new type of man growing up in France).
At a time when individualist cinema seems to be experiencing a resurgence (see the Coens' A Serious Man and especially Tom Ford's A Single Man, in which Colin Firth's character's only aim is "just [to] get through the goddamn day") A Prophet is a piece of red raw, stripped-down existentialism in the mold of Bresson's A Man Escaped, wherein the protagonist, who starts with nothing, provides meaning to his life only in his fight for survival. Malik's approach to the fight starts defensively, but slowly he grabs the initiative and places himself one step ahead of the threat, until finally he himself has become the threat. Despite its length, the film is formally structured with brilliant economy as a series of forks in the road, before each of which Malik is forced to choose the path that will best deliver him from his imprisonment. The first dilemma confronting Malik after he is transferred from juvenile detention to a prison that is ultimately controlled by the Corsican mob, is whether to kill a man he does not know, in return for their protection. The alternative to acting is his own death, so this first choice is made for him. The sickening event shakes him out of his instinctive desire (with which we identify) to stay out of trouble, and propels him inexorably towards a life of organized crime. Little by little, he becomes the master of his own destiny: his crimes, and his development as a criminal, represent the successful making of Malik as a human being.
Comparisons with the story of Henry Hill in Scorsese's Goodfellas (as a sort of portrait of the gangster as a young man) are understandable, but the film is in fact much closer to Taxi Driver in its intrusion into the psyche of a lost soul, a vessel for the evils of the world and a self-serving product of a society in breakdown. The vital difference is that Malik, unlike Scorsese's prophet, Travis Bickle, is not remotely unbalanced—rather he is phenomenally adaptable, has a superior brain and is fiercely moral (he understands evil because it has been done to him). In any case the similarities with Scorsese are merely thematic, not aesthetic (only once does Audiard threaten to trespass into Scorsese territory, with a montage of prison scenes set to Turner Cody's “Corner of My Room,” depicting Malik’s elevation to boss status). Instead Audiard, with cowriter Thomas Bidegain and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (who also worked on The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Desplechin's My Sex Life . . .) overwhelmingly favors the intrusive, static camera: lingering up close and personal with the occasional “iris out” technique to intensify our focus further. Just as Malik is continually haunted by the ghost of his first victim, Reyeb, so the camera never leaves Malik's side either. He is never truly alone with his thoughts, because we are there too.
Rather than seeing Audiard as a successor to Bresson or Scorsese, it is more helpful to our understanding of A Prophet to position Audiard within France's post-war existentialist literary tradition, and more specifically alongside the work of Albert Camus, with which A Prophet shares two crucial preoccupations: imprisonment and the fear of the Arab. Just as Camus represented the Nazi occupation of France by the quarantine of an Algerian town in The Plague (the epigraph at the beginning of Camus’s The Plague, taken from Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, 1665, proclaims, as an invitation to allegory, that “[it] is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not”), Audiard sets A Prophet inside a prison whose walls are almost an irrelevance, because he is really a prisoner of his own Islamism, and of his subservience to the Corsican mob boss, Luciani (Niels Arestrup). Audiard, in an interview with the BBC, quoted the fatalistic Bob Dylan song “Gotta Serve Somebody” as a potential title of the film, and there is no question that the focus of Malik's escape is not from prison but from the coercive stranglehold of Luciani's “protection” and from the trap of subservience. The bleak conclusion to be drawn from this reversed allegory is that there is ultimately no escape, unless you obtain power, which brings with it an imprisonment of its own.
Where A Prophet reaches out towards (and earns) a higher level of recognition, is in its treatment of an Arab hero, directly confronting the position of the Arab in the French psyche. Ever since the Algerian war, France's race relations, haunted by the specter of the Vichy regime, have gone from bad to worse. As a presidential candidate in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy used the slogan: “France: Aime-la ou quitte-la!” (love her or leave her) which had hitherto been espoused by the extreme right wing National Front. Immigration itself has now become a mainstream political issue rather than simply the preserve of extremist parties, and since September 11 the focus has fallen sharply on “Muslim immigrants” (by the time A Prophet is released in the US, a new proposal to ban the public wearing of burqas will be well on the way to being enacted into French law). Furthermore, it was widely believed (on the right) that the primary reason for France's refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq was because the French were terrified that the Iraq conflict would turn their own Arab population against them. The fear of the Arab, which Camus did more than anyone to highlight, is omnipresent in A Prophet’s script (Luciani apprehends the increasing numbers of "les barbus,” or “the bearded ones” as a threat to the Corsicans' control of the prison; Malik is loathed by the Corsican lieutenants whom he serves) but most significantly it represents a challenge laid down to the audience (as Camus also laid down with his short story The Guest) to identify with an Arab protagonist. Some may choose to see in the conclusion of A Prophet a depiction of the criminality of fundamentalism, but they will merely be falling prey to their own prejudices: Malik's decision to rejoin his own people springs from a forensic analysis of his own deeply held values once he has obtained power, not from the criminal pragmatism that got him there.
There are, in A Prophet, what some would consider fautes de goût (lapses in taste). In prison films, certain tropes are almost inevitable (no cups are rattled against cell bars, though burning bits of paper are thrown from cell windows), but we are a world away from the banalities of The Shawshank Redemption—the viewer's understanding of the prison's systemic failure, degradation, and corruption is more pointed because these properties are depicted as unremarkable; the only drama here is in the human struggle.
A more pertinent concern is whether the spiritual dimension afforded Malik is wholly convincing. Aside from the ghostly appearances of his razor-blade victim Reyeb, in various states of combustion (odd, when Islam forbids cremation), the ability of Malik to prophecy certain events in his life through dreams is dealt with half-heartedly (essentially, one character calls him “a prophet” because he foresees a car accident involving a deer) and conflicts with the underlying existentialist theme of controlling one’s destiny. Furthermore, the images used by Audiard and Fontaine to convey this aspect of Malik's journey belong to a school of magic realism with which Audiard does not appear to be either familiar or comfortable: there is occasionally a faint echo of Bobby Sands’s “memory of birds” at the end of Steve McQueen's Hunger, which is not entirely comforting. The film’s gradual development of Malik’s understanding of where he truly belongs seems to have ultimately little to do with the metaphysical elements of the story and more to do with his sense of justice for the wrongs that have been done to him. The dream and ghost sequences seek to create a sense of spiritual contemplation, even meditation, which underscores Malik's conversion, but they succeed more forcefully as emotional and aesthetic respite from the pattern of violence and danger.
Rather, Audiard's greatest strength is in the build-up of suspense (scenes of brutality serve as a reminder of the fate that awaits Malik if he falters, they are not simply an end in themselves) together with the freshness and intensity of his direction of violent set-pieces. This is particularly palpable in a climactic hold-up towards the end, which by a combination of almost unbearable suspense and our wholesale immersion into Malik's predicament, outguns anything you will see in a Bourne movie. Tahar Rahim announces himself as a young actor of unusual magnetism, much as Vincent Cassel did in 1995 with La Haine, though it’s disturbing to think that however much he will now be solicited, he may never get another role as substantial as this one. Niels Arestrup, a regular Audiard actor taking the crepuscular role of Malik’s (tor)mentor, Luciani (which once upon a time might have been tailor-made for Jean Gabin), is terrifying.
Zooming in as tightly as possible on the man and his struggle, Audiard has honed in A Prophet the dramatic formula which consecrates all the success of his work—the film is less of a meditation on spirituality than a furnace of anger against the direction of French society. And if it succeeds best on the safer ground of the linear crime film (of which Papa Audiard knew a thing or two), then the overall impact of A Prophet is so strong that questions as to whether it fulfills its other ambitions are simply consumed in the flames.